It’s 2020, decades after the raunchiness of Lucille Bogan, Millie Jackson, and Lil’ Kim, and yet people want you to know how shocked they are by “WAP,” the latest hit by Cardi B featuring Megan Thee Stallion. We already know that conservative Republicans, and even men in hip hop, are quick to act as gatekeepers for what feminism is, what makes a proper feminist, and how women, in general, should act in order to be considered appropriately feminine. But despite the pearl-clutching and conservative outrage, Cardi and Meg have given the world a feminist anthem, and they don’t care if it’s too much for some folks to handle.
There’s no denying that “WAP,” which stands for “Wet Ass Pussy,” is an ode to women’s sexual empowerment. Backed by a bass-heavy hook sampled from Frank Ski’s Baltimore house classic “Whores in This House,” Cardi and Meg boast about their sexual prowess, declare what they want and like, push back against sexist expectations of womanhood—and advocate for listeners to do the same. Predictably, at least one online scold claims the song “sets women back 100 years,” but if “WAP” does call to the past, it’s not in the insulting, patronizing way intended by such remarks. Black women have been using music to brag about their bodies, sexual skills, and explicit desires for a very long time.
In 1924, for example, blues singer Ma Rainey released the song “Shave ‘Em Dry,” which later became a 1935 hit for Lucille Bogan, known then for her sexually explicit songs. Bogan’s version includes the lyrics “I got nipples on my titties/ Big as the end of my thumbs/ I got something between my legs/ will make a dead man come.” But despite this bawdy legacy, Black women who foreground their own sexual pleasure in their music have long been faced with accusations that doing so is degrading and “unladylike.” So many of us came of age listening and dancing to the often filthy lyrics of 2 Live Crew, Uncle Luke, Too Short, Twista, Ying Yang Twins, Ludacris, Lil’ Kim, Trina, Khia, Gangsta Boo—yes, the list is long, and it could be even longer—that the “WAP” backlash is surprising. It’s become a bit of a joke how quickly women pack the dance floor for Juvenile’s “Back That Azz Up”—a song in which women are called “bitches” and “hoes” on a loop.
It’s only when women like Cardi and Meg (and, before them, the likes of Lil’ Kim and Trina) reclaim sexual narratives associated with men that the criticism rolls in, and it does so because women taking control of their own sexuality frightens and intimidates men who are accustomed to using sex against women, rather than centering women’s pleasure. Suddenly, people are concerned about young listeners being exposed to explicit content, as if we haven’t long normalized the men who are singing and rapping equally frank lyrics. The controversy around “WAP” isn’t just about the lyrics; it’s about the women behind them, and the unabashed joy they find in their bodies.
On a very basic level, “WAP” is a song that takes pride in how wet someone (though not everyone) can become when aroused properly. In order to increase pleasure for sex, the vagina is supposed to get wet; the more turned on you are, the wetter it gets. That’s a good thing, despite what some conservatives would have the world think. Cardi and Megan Thee Stallion bragging about how wet they get isn’t just an anatomical boast, but a declaration that they’re women who are experiencing pleasure because they know what they want and are receiving it. In fact, the verses are all about what they like and want and how all of that can lead to making them wet, creating a fantastic experience for them and their partners. In this second half of the song, Cardi and Meg show us you can be in control and get what you want whether you’re on the bottom or on top.
Cardi says, “I wanna gag/ I wanna choke/ I want you to touch that lil dangling thing that swing in the back of my throat.” She may be the receiver of her partner’s sexual aggression here but it’s because her “head game is fire.” There can be power in submission. “WAP” encourages its listeners, particularly women, to go after what you desire because you have the power to get what you want. Cardi’s first verse lays out what she enjoys: rough sex, kinky sex (role play, bondage, public sex, spitting). She tells us what she wants: oral sex, a big dick. And she lets us know that she may not follow the guidelines of what a proper wife may be, but she’s still married: “I don’t cook/ I don’t clean/ But let me tell you/ I got this ring.”
For many women, one of the ultimate pressures of womanhood is marriage, and to get there, women are expected to fulfill traditional roles as a homemaker. Cardi’s blatant enthusiasm about the power of her own sexuality, and lack of adherence to the aforementioned expectations, did not prevent her from getting married. By letting us know that, she’s telling other women they don’t have to follow society’s rules in order to land a husband. Cardi’s message is clear: Be yourself, not what society tells you, and you can still achieve your relationship goals. Megan Thee Stallion’s appearance on “WAP” underlines Cardi’s message. In her first verse, after giving her lover specific instructions to “Gobble me/ Swallow me/ Drip down the side of me,” Meg revels in her role as Hot Girl Coach and begins schooling her listeners on how to remain on top in their relationships, metaphorically and physically.
She takes it a step further by coaching listeners to be bold and “Ask for a car/ While you ride that dick.” Even though Meg encourages women to take advantage of their sexual prowess by asking for a big ticket item like a car during a man’s weakened and distracted state, she steps back and lets us know sex isn’t really a necessary bargaining chip because “You ain’t really never gotta fuck him for a thing/ He already made his mind up before he came.” Many women think their relationships with men are inherently transactional: If I do this, he’ll give me that. But in this verse, Meg, like Cardi, is telling us you don’t have to follow societal expectations to get what you want.
Black women who foreground their own sexual pleasure in their music have long been faced with accusations that doing so is degrading and “unladylike.”
Some people have suggested that Cardi and Megan Thee Stallion should be more like Lauryn Hill or Erykah Badu, with less explicit, more encouraging “conscious” lyrics, but those same people forget that Hill and Badu are frequently criticized for their past relationship and parenting choices. Others bring up Missy Elliott as the model female rapper, but Elliott has songs dedicated to the power of her pussy (“Pussycat”) and constantly raps about how good her sex is (“Work It”). People frequently desexualize Missy because she’s a dark-skinned, plus-sized woman who does not wear form-fitting clothes, but she is extremely vocal about her sex. For any prominent woman in music—and most other spaces—the cycle of scandalized criticism is never-ending because, ultimately, it doesn’t matter how women express desire.
Society discourages and ridicules this expression, devaluing everything from romance novels to fan fiction to raunchy lyrics. There is no “proper” way for women to talk about sex because too many people think women should not talk about sex at all, that it’s “locker-room talk” for (cis heterosexual) men only. “WAP” is a womanist manifesto. Women are constantly told to hide their bodies, their desires, their pride in themselves, but Cardi and Meg push back against that and, most importantly, encourage other people to do the same. They’re not “setting women back”; they’re trying to push us forward by sharing the benefits of abandoning antiquated notions of femininity and womanhood. Feminism thrives when women are no longer ashamed to use their voices to get what they want, which is exactly what Cardi and Megan Thee Stallion are doing in “WAP.” They are expressing desire, taking pride in their bodies and sexualities, and encouraging others, especially women, to do the same. It doesn’t get more feminist than that.